Find resources / Articles / Play for 3–5 year-olds

A 3-year-old’s brain is nearly 80% of the size of an adult’s brain. They have new and increased connections developing in their brain, especially in the vision centres. This helps their developing imagination and their ability to see things in their mind.

Play is as important for 3–5-year-olds’ learning and healthy development as it was in previous years. Play is still their work.

Even if tamariki attend an early childhood education (ECE) centre, whānau involvement in their play and learning at home is still very important. Whānau are the people tamariki know best, so they are always the best playmates.

Building and maintaining those trusting relationships with tamariki really matters to their future learning about the world and about getting on with others.

Changes for tamariki between 3–5 years

  • They are learning about playing together and will cooperate more with other tamariki. By the time they’re 5, they’re more likely to enjoy making friends, playing group games, and being part of group activities. These skills may develop alongside siblings at home or at their ECE centre, but also might develop through church activities, sports teams or kapa haka groups.
  • They are developing a sense of humour and enjoy jokes and fooling around with other kids.
  • They continue to watch and listen to the adults in their lives and copy what they see and hear.
  • Much of their play will involve copying adult activities.
  • They begin to develop self-control, so they are more able to wait for their turn in games and to sometimes share toys.
  • They show feelings and sometimes show empathy when others are upset.
  • They are growing stronger, and are more confident and skilled in using their big and small muscles, so whānau need to keep up with changing safety needs – tamariki can go further and faster!
  • They want to be more independent, and do more things for themselves.
  • They need whānau to set fair limits and to help them keep those limits. They continue to need structure and routine in their daily lives.
  • Their imagination becomes more active. They are developing new and increasing connections in the vision centres of their brain’s cerebral cortex. Some tamariki may have imaginary friends. Sometimes they can’t tell the difference between reality and what they imagine or watch on digital media.
  • They will still enjoy pretend play, which can become more complex. Tamariki are likely to try acting out different adult roles.

In Whakatipu booklets Te Māhuri 1 and Te Māhuri 2, ‘Ngā mahi a whānau’ (purple pages, 10 to 17), there are many ideas for playing and learning together as whānau go about their daily lives. Look at all the learning for tamariki when whānau join in the fun.

This resource is also full of ideas for playing together with tamariki at every age and stage.

Other resources

Department of Health, Government of Western Australia | Child development 3–4 years(external link)

Department of Health, Government of Western Australia | Child development 4–5 years(external link)